Eucharistic Animals and Hope for Earth (Inner Animalities Book Event)

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This post was written by Jay Emerson Johnson. Jay is a  Professor of Theology and Culture and Academic Director of the Ignite Institute  at the Pacific School of Religion. He is also a member of the core doctoral faculty at the Graduate Theological Union.

The grief I felt after the death of my beloved Australian shepherd dog Tyler, back in 2013, surprised me. Connecting that grief to the leather-sex sub-culture of “pup play” surprised me even more. The link between these emerged from an academic colleague’s suggestion that I might find animal studies an apt complement to queer theory for my constructive theological work.

I adopted Tyler from the local shelter when he was already nine years old. He lived another seven, happy years as my nearly constant companion at both work and play. When the time came to let him go after a period of ill health, I knew it would be difficult but not nearly as gut wrenching as it proved to be. The empty space he left behind prompted more introspection on a whole range of questions than I had expected, including a classic that I had not posed for a long time: do I have something called a “soul” but Tyler did not? More broadly, what exactly have Christian theologians meant by claiming for centuries that God made humanity in God’s own image when at nearly every turn the latest ethological research identifies yet another feature that can no longer belong to humans alone?

Questions like these quickly convinced me to follow my colleague’s advice and turn toward animal studies in my theological work, an academic excursion that began (again, surprisingly) with the Folsom Street fair in San Francisco. This fair attracts people associated with a variety of sexual practices in the “leather community.” I spent most of my time there at the Folsom pup area, which is something like a mosh pit for human pups and their masters. Broadly speaking, the master/pup relationship is usually not sexual in the typical use of that word, though it is certainly physically affectionate, much like the relationship between a human and an actual canine. “Actual”? What does that word indicate in this context? Actual as opposed to what? Standard categorizations quickly fail when trying to describe this world of “human pups.” Consider this description of the pup phenomenon from one of the many online communities devoted to it:

A man being a pup wants to let go of inhibitions, to take a break from the stress of his human world for a time. Human puppies like to simplify their desires and motivations as they embrace a new expression of themselves, one that is more animal and certainly less socialized-human. As a puppy he can wag his tail, and lick his owner’s hand and show his feelings in new and direct ways without fear of judgment.[1]

That same online community lists these qualities of a pup: bravery, rational calm, openness, virtue, curiosity, and perseverance. To pose the question again: Are these the qualities of the human or the pup? What’s the difference between humans and canines? Eric Daryl Meyer would likely respond theologically to that question by saying, “well, not very much worth mentioning.”

Inner Animalities is a provocative, insightful, and inspiring book that orbits, in Meyer’s words, “our efforts at self-definition vis-à-vis animality” and with a goal of thinking differently about what we hold in common with other animals (2). Other theologians have been occupying similar orbits in recent years, but Meyer’s work stands out for his deep dives into classical theological paradigms and his unflinching gaze at what often seem like intractable quandaries, the thickets one quickly tumbles into when trying to resist the kind of strict categorical distinctions between humans and other animals on which so many theologians and social theorists alike seem to rely. Or we might follow Charles Darwin’s lead and refer to those thickets as “the tangled bank,” an image he used to conclude the sixth and final edition of On the Origin of Species. Contrary to popular caricatures, Darwin did not conceive of biological evolution in tidy progressions, suitable for charting on graph paper. Life resides deep inside the knotty entanglements of multiple species—plants, insects, animals—each relying on all the others in a complex dance and weave of adaptation, mutation, and change. There is no tidy line—not in Darwin’s view of evolving species and not in Meyer’s view of humans in relation to other animals.

Overall, Meyer achieves with this book what I had hoped would materialize when I took my own theological turn toward animality after Tyler’s death. I would describe (and appreciate) that achievement as a theological construal of the human that is inextricably and deeply embedded with other creatures and, at the same time, capable of self-transcendence toward God. More precisely (and this is where his insightful provocations mostly reside), humanity’s capacity for transcendence actually increases as our embedded relations with other creatures deepen. As Meyer puts this, “human beings enjoy the greatest proximity to God in moments of commonality and connection with nonhuman creatures, rather than in moments of categorical uniqueness and separation” (93). In more traditional terms, the theological doctrines of creation and eschatology remain inseparable in this book, and not because the latter “solves” the problems posed by the former; rather, they remain inseparable because the intricately webbed relations of all species in the unimaginable beauty and complexity of God’s creation is the material of Christian eschatological hope.

In that grand arc, I’ll note briefly two moments of illumination that Meyer provides for my own work and commitments, and especially as these mutually inform each other. The first deals with the ongoing vexations associated with theological anthropology, and why it might matter to conceptualize the human in a more robust relation with other animals. I have become persuaded that human classification schemes are often animated by metaphors drawn from the worlds of other animals (using non-human animal tropes to denigrate, for example, humans of “other” races). The title of this book itself suggests an important frame for addressing that insidious reliance on animal tropes–the ongoing struggle with our own inner animalities. Meyer makes this clear in his introduction, where he insists that “all the prevalent Western forms of human self-understanding arise from some version of a categorical distinction between human beings and other animals” (2). He makes the consequences of this prevalence plain by noting the judgments of value that attach to these distinctions: “Humanity names a set of cherished and accepted behaviors, values, and traits; while animality names a corresponding set that is generally subject to discipline and restriction” (4).

Meyer could have made still plainer how the distinctions he rightly critiques are so frequently mapped to the rhetoric of white supremacy, the misogynistic commodification of women’s bodies, and the truly insidious intertwining of these denigrations. He comes very close to this kind of analysis when he describes how the “deep narratives of theological anthropology generate and sustain forms of human self-understanding that separate and subordinate animality”(5). While resisting and indeed erasing that subordination would help us address ecological degradation and open up new avenues for “ecological theology,” as he amply demonstrates throughout this book, such erasure would also thereby illumine how the categorical distinctions between races and genders can no longer rely on the human/animal distinction to fund intra-human discrimination.

The second moment of illumination likewise resides in a broader field of inquiry, namely, that of a Christian eschatological imagination. While some have supposed it not unreasonable to imagine an eschatological future for other-than-human animals (at least at the level of species if not actual individuals who once lived and then died), Meyer bravely tackles the more particular question of predation and then more particularly still of consumption. Only a few other theologians who have traveled down this perilous path, and I find the journey Meyer invites us to take simultaneously more arduous and more satisfying.

Meyer reminds us that “the resurrected body of Jesus must be the beginning and end of all Christian reflection about resurrected bodies” (157). This is not a new insight (thus, a “reminder” here) but Meyer does take this insight a fair distance farther than most by imagining what the risen Jesus might signal about an eschatological future for both predator and prey. In short, Meyer imagines such a future still punctuated by consumption. But this “life cannot be diminished, divided, or threatened simply by being torn and consumed,” he argues (159). And, thankfully, he notes that this kind of supposition “strains reason and imagination.”

What I find so striking in Meyer’s approach to these questions is the (now) utterly obvious but typically overlooked analogy he draws to the Eucharistic feast in which Christ is continually consumed but never diminished. I admit to gasping out loud as I read this portion of his book in my study, where my (new) Australian shepherd dog (Judah) was awakened from a nap by my startled vocalization. Again, the resurrected body of Jesus must be the beginning and end of all Christian reflection on resurrected bodies. Why such reflection does not begin and continually return to the resurrected body at the Eucharistic table now seems to me (after reading this book) as truly odd and perplexing. The pattern of our shared life as Christians is shaped by the pattern of God’s own self-giving at the Table, and with no indication in the biblical witness or subsequent traditions that such self-giving would ever cease but instead continue forever as the source of zoe aionios—eternal life, or “eternal animality,” as Meyer helpfully prefers to render it. Helpful, because animality (which includes both consumption and sexual expression) is not merely sloughed off in the eschaton as if useless or even unintended, but much more fully and robustly embraced as the very intention of the Creator who set such materiality into motion (172).

Meyer deftly (and movingly) unites these illuminating moments—concerning theological anthropology and Christian eschatology—and thereby refreshes my gratitude for having pursued animal studies as a scholarly partner for queer theory in my theological work. He does this at the Eucharistic Table, a location where I have made an argument similar to his but concerning LGBT people in Christian churches rather than other animals. Before making ethical pronouncements about the sex lives of lesbian and gay people, I have often urged, let us first consider what kind of theological frame we wish to adopt for sex itself. Meyer sounds precisely this note as he acknowledges the complex ethical and political concerns that emerge from a refusal to distinguish humanity and animality. “Nevertheless,” he writes, “I am convinced that, conceptually prior to these ethical concerns, there is a layer of thought at which problems of ecology, humanity, and nonhuman animal life are thoroughly enmeshed” (173).

As we, all of us, stand together on a tangled bank, our lives wondrously enmeshed with countless other species, I’m grateful for Meyer’s insights on how we might stand there well. Hope emerges for these shared entanglements when our “common creaturehood,” he notes, rises above “proper humanity” (176). The hope manifests in various ways, whether in conceptual realignments of humanity’s place in the cosmos, or in acts of bodily solidarity with the pain and suffering of other creatures, perhaps whole species or ecosystems, or more simply in writing without hesitation (or any shame) of encountering in an Australian shepherd dog something of the God who made us both—and who loves us equally.

[1] http://www.siriuspup.net/what-is-human-pup-play/.  See also: http://www.leatherpug.com/pupRView1.html, http://www.makkorps.org/puppingout/?p=79, and http://www.ipupcontest.com/history (accessed March 1, 2019).

One thought on “Eucharistic Animals and Hope for Earth (Inner Animalities Book Event)

  1. Thank you Jay, for this wonderful post! I’m really glad that you’ve drawn attention to my (secret) favorite chapter on eschatology. I remember vividly the moment when I first made the connection between resurrection, the messianic feast, and the eucharist. I was sketching out ideas for this chapter, pushing ideas around on a piece of paper when this constellation of ideas came together. I’m pretty sure that I gasped or shouted too. As soon as I’d seen that link all the pieces fell into place for the chapter. It’s a favorite, I think, because the idea that the eucharist points to a paradise in which we all live by devouring and being devoured in the divine life of the resurrection is simultaneously so obvious and so weird. I’ll respond at greater length next week, but thank you for your work here!

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